A lot of people who have gone through the practice of lucid dreaming report having an experience where they felt like they had lived through a century in just one dream.

This is usually followed by a myriad of questions from sceptics like; can lucid dreaming alter one’s perception and experience of time? And how real is that experience when compared to the waking state?

At this point, there are no conclusive answers to these questions, only theories based on observation, a few studies, and experiences of several individuals. Nevertheless, the distortion of time during lucid dreaming remains an interesting, if not fascinating topic. Hence we’ve decided to explore it here, just to see how much of this experience is credible or even accessible, to those that seek it.

Lucid Dreaming and the Brain

According to experts, lucid dreaming triggers certain parts of the brain which would normally remain inactive during waking hours, while deactivating parts that would.

For example, our ability to recall short term memory is extremely limited during the dream state, whereas long term memory is remarkably enhanced. Similarly, one’s perception of time becomes strangely distorted in the lucid dream state, as evidenced by the ability to dream elaborate dreams that seem to last for decades upon decades, when in fact only an hour or two has transpired in ‘real time’.

To illustrate this idea, let’s take some inspiration from the documentary film ‘Waking Life’ by director Richard Linklater , where one of the characters explains how our brain processes time in the dream state when compared to the waking state:

“In the waking world, the neural system inhibits the activation of the vividness of memories, and this makes evolutionary sense. It would be maladaptive for the perception of a predator to be mistaken for the memory of one, and vice versa. For instance, if the memory of a predator conjured up the perceptual image, we’d be running off to the bathroom every time we had a scary thought.

So you have these serotonic neurons that inhibit hallucination, so that they themselves are inhibited during REM sleep. This allows dreams to appear real, while preventing competition from other perceptual processes. This is why dreams are mistaken for reality.

To the functional system of neural activity that creates our world, there is no difference between dreaming a perception and an action, and actually the waking perception and action.”

Is your mind blown yet? Basically, what this is saying is that ‘dreams are real only as long as they last’, of which the same could be said about one’s waking life, and in the end, that’s what causes dreams to seem as real as the waking state, and vice versa.

Time Altering Plants and Time Distortion

In addition, the distortion of time can be brought on by the consumption of powerful dream-inducing herbs like

Ayahuasca or Calea Zacatechichi, which often enable dreamers to experience up to an entire lifetime of perceived memories, filled with rich storylines and characters that are so vivid that they feel completely real. In fact, even seemingly ‘soft-core’ plants like Marijuana or shrooms can cause slight distortions in time regardless of whether one is in a waking or dream state.

Films like Inception and The Matrix give us a glimpse into how we can use certain plants as tools to manipulate time within a dream so that it runs fast or slow depending on our intentions.

However, you cannot control how you perceive time within a dream until you learn to actively control your dreams first. Keep in mind that dreaming is like watching a movie, where you get to watch a character’s entire lifetime transpire in just two hours or more. The only difference is that in your dreams, you are that character and the director of the movie as well.

Is it real?

The question still remains though, are you really having all those experiences or is your brain just tricking you into thinking that you are? This type of time distortion can cause confusion for some people, where they wake up feeling disoriented and find it hard to believe that they were just dreaming because their experiences felt so real.

What could be happening is that the mind is running at higher speeds than normal, which is a possibility that Alan Watts once hinted at through one of his speeches where he invites his audience to play around with the idea of experiencing a 75 year lifetime in one dream. Check out an excerpt from that speech below to get an idea of what we’re referring to:

“…Let’s suppose that you were able every night to dream any dream you wanted to dream, and that you could for example have the power within one night to dream 75 years of time, or any length of time you wanted to have.

And you would, naturally, as you began on this adventure of dreams, you would fulfil all your wishes. You would have every kind of pleasure during your sleep. And after several nights of 75 years of total pleasure each you would say “Well that was pretty great”. But now let’s have a surprise, let’s have a dream which isn’t under control, where something is gonna happen to me that I don’t know what it’s gonna be.

And you would dig that and would come out of that and you would say “Wow that was a close shave, wasn’t it?”.

Then you would get more and more adventurous and you would make further- and further-out gambles what you would dream. And finally, you would dream where you are now. You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.”

Alan Watts’ idea of the dream state being sort of an alternate reality continues to intrigue fans of lucid dreaming to this day, and it’s not hard to see why. I mean, even within the waking state, one experiences time differently where in some instances it seems to pass quickly, whereas at other times it moves slowly.

For example, time tends to pass quickly when we’re feeling elated, but can feel slow when we’re stuck in a boring situation. So if we’re able to experience time distortion to a small degree, even while we’re awake, isn’t it entirely possible to experience that same time distortion when we’re asleep, with the only difference being that we experience it running longer?

To me it seems like time is created by the mind more than anything else, because time feels different based on our perceptions. Some experimenters in lucid dreaming have gone as far as to stop time altogether during the dream state, leading to a pause-like sensation where everything seems to be suspended in motion.

In the end, lucid dreaming is increasingly pushing the boundaries of what we know about time, whereby it’s presented as something that we can actively control instead of being at its mercy.

Forming a different perception of time can completely change the way in which we relate to reality, and ultimately help us to take a more proactive approach to life, understanding that life- and time- doesn’t’ just happen to us, but we rather create it through our minds. So lucid dreaming ultimately begs the question; are we truly alive or are we just walking through existence as if in a dream?